03/02/2012 02:17 pm ET Updated May 02, 2012

Not Many Novels From Some Novelists

What do these authors have in common? Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Sir Walter Scott, and Emile Zola.

And what do these authors have in common? Ralph Ellison, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Marilynne Robinson.

The first group includes authors who wrote/write novels at a dizzying rate. The second group includes authors who wrote/write novels in a more sparing fashion.

This post will be about the latter group, and it was inspired by Robinson's Gilead. After recently finishing that elegiac book, I was surprised to learn that her previous novel, Housekeeping, had been published a full 24 years earlier.

Eugenides' The Marriage Plot (2011) was just his third novel in 18 years, after The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002). Franzen's Freedom (2010) was just his fourth novel in 22 years, after The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), Strong Motion (1992), and The Corrections (2001).

And Ellison (Invisible Man), Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), and Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) are among the famous writers who published only one novel. (Emily Bronte, too, but the Wuthering Heights author only lived to age 30.)

There are various reasons why some authors have sparsely populated canons. Some die young or relatively young, as did Bronte and Mitchell -- the latter hit by a car at age 48. Some deal with ill health. Some feel they've said all they want to say in their minimal output. Some develop writer's block. Some produce long, complex books (such as Freedom) that take years to complete. Some spend time between novels writing short stories or nonfiction, or doing nonliterary things.

Then there are authors who are more prolific during one part of their career than another. Robinson, for instance, released her third novel (2008's Home) just four years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, a book I found moving but also slow-moving. Gilead is in the form of a letter an aged, ailing reverend writes to his young son -- a letter that includes the reverend's thoughts about religion, his wife, his abolitionist grandfather, and more.

Herman Melville wrote more than 10 novels and novellas between 1846 and 1857, but -- dogged by poor reviews and sales for 1850s works such as Moby-Dick and Pierre -- never published another prose book before dying in 1891. (Billy Budd came out posthumously in 1924.) Melville spent his novel-less decades working a day job and writing poetry.

Melville contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne authored Fanshawe in 1828, but didn't finish his second novel, The Scarlet Letter, until 1850. He quickly followed that with The House of the Seven Gables in 1851 and The Blithedale Romance in 1852 before The Marble Faun arrived in 1860.

Hawthorne's long pre-1850 novel gap was filled with much short story-writing. His post-1852 novel gap included helping his college pal Franklin Pierce get elected president by authoring a campaign biography more glowing that the candidate deserved. Pierce reciprocated by appointing Hawthorne the U.S. consul in Liverpool; when that job ended, Nathaniel and family took a lengthy European sojourn.

Who are your favorite not-too-prolific novelists of the past and present? And, in addition to the reasons I mentioned, what might be other explanations for minimal author productivity?